Eyeing the C-suite? Carve out an executive career path with strategy

What does it take to reach the C-suite? An Autodesk product executive shares strategies for aspiring leaders on setting an executive career path to reach the top levels in business.

Illustration by Micke Tong.

executive career path

Susan Etlinger

September 21, 2020

min read

The road to the C-suite is typically paved with zigs and zags, including a number of lateral moves that enable leaders to gain experience across several organizations. So how does a person map an executive career path? For starters, it’s a good idea to have a chat with a current C-suite member to get some great advice.

Autodesk Executive Vice President, Architecture, Engineering and Construction Design Solutions Amy Bunszel recently participated in a webinar with Denise Stokowski, group VP of platform products at Gainsight, to talk about product leadership, mentorship, keys to an executive career path, and the power of a good metaphor. What follows is a summary of their conversation; it has been edited for space and clarity.

executive career path autodesk amy bunszel
Autodesk Autodesk Executive Vice President, Architecture, Engineering and Construction Design Solutions Amy Bunszel. Illustration by Micke Tong.

Tell us a bit about your career path. How did you get into your current role?

I started my career as a hardware engineer. I’m an electrical engineer; I knew nothing about product management. I started a journey of changing jobs about every two years—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But with each job, I came closer and closer to moving into software and thinking about product management. And it turned out that I liked synthesizing concepts; I liked being that interface between what the company was building and what the customers needed.

When I joined Autodesk, it was through an acquisition. In 1996, I cofounded Linius Technologies, a computer-aided design [CAD] company, and we were acquired by Autodesk in 2003. So I came in as an individual contributor product manager. And for me, that was great because, while I enjoyed start-up life, I was doing a thousand different jobs, and this was my first chance to really think about developing as a professional product manager and deepening my skill set. And there were lots of people at Autodesk to learn from. I moved up the ranks, managing product managers and expanding the team to cover more products. Currently, I’m responsible for product management, experience design and analytics, and development teams—that represents about 1,400 people.

A key point in my career was when I took on cross-functional responsibilities. I went from running product to running product and development. And that was a fun challenge because I was now having to manage a lot of people who were doing jobs I had never done. So I had to think about leadership in a different way—more about empowering people than about knowing how to do that work.

What accelerated your career?

It may sound counterintuitive, but a big part was my willingness to take lateral moves. A lot of people think about advancement as just moving up the ladder. But when I moved from Portland to San Francisco 10 years ago, I changed product lines and divisions and proved I was a versatile multidimensional leader who could adapt to different types of products and in different lifecycle phases. It put me on a path to take on different types of responsibility over time.

the next normal susan etlinger
Author Susan Etlinger. Illustration by Micke Tong.

What’s one thing you used to believe about career development that you no longer do

Earlier in my career, I thought that if I was unhappy, I just had to leave the company. But now I believe that if you’re unhappy, the first thing you should do is talk to your current employer and give them a chance. If you don’t ask and you just leave, you don’t know whether there could have been another opportunity. You’ve lost all the capital that you’ve accumulated, and you have to start all over again.

Tell us about your experience with mentorship—what has that been like for you?

Early in my career, when I was a software applications engineer, I had a mentor named Howard Colton. We went on thousands of sales calls together. I did the demos and talked about how to solve problems using our company’s software. Howard always gave me feedback after the sales calls. He really was a master at giving in-the-moment feedback, whether it was after a demo or a customer engagement or an internal meeting.

So I was in a constant feedback cycle. And the key is that in-the-moment feedback is so much easier to contextualize and respond to and work with, whether it’s positive or constructive. I learned that from Howard, and it’s something I always try to model. Even if it doesn’t always feel good, it always pays off in the end.

One thing we have in common is that we re both big fans of Peloton, as we’re both currently wearing Peloton T-shirts. It’s my understanding that you have a story that connects Peloton’s business model to product management. Can you talk about that

Three years ago, we started to move from on-premise software—serial numbers and perpetual licenses—to the subscription model. I really wanted my team to understand subscriptions. We have an annual engineering-technology conference for employees, and I told the story of my Peloton subscription experience and how, unlike physical products that lose value once you buy them, the value of subscriptions increases with time and use.

Peloton does a great job of personalizing the customer experience based on all the data and analytics it collects and leveraging its partner ecosystem—Android, Apple, Fitbit, Spotify, and others—to deliver a highly engaging, data-driven experience. When I get my Peloton usage data for the month, I always think how much I would love to be able to send that kind of information to our users and add value with suggestions of how they compare against other users and where they might invest in building new skills.

So I wore the T-shirt I’m wearing now, the one I earned after completing 100 rides. And I used this metaphor because it helped my team really understand the mind shift from perpetual license and serial numbers to subscription products and users. The moral of the story? Never waste a good metaphor if you have one!

What would you tell people who are trying to take on product-leadership responsibilities?

It’s really important to have a diverse set of experiences. When you’re thinking about your next move, think about what kind of experiences you’ve had and what you can add to your portfolio. For example, there are so many different types of software: B2B, B2C, enterprise, and so on. Each has different types of business models and different types of sales motions. Moving from one industry to another is also an interesting way to expand your point of view and add value to your experiences, so you can offer a depth that others can’t.

two businesswomen talk face to face
Curiosity, adaptability, and flexibility are important skills. Illustration by Micke Tong

What qualities make for great product managers?

I like to look for people who are really curious and have a demonstrated track record for taking risks and experimenting. Often, I find that people who start with a hypothesis and try to prove it help us get to a better outcome faster, rather than someone concerned with having a fully baked plan right from the start and then, halfway through, has trouble letting go of what they thought was going to happen when it isn’t really going to happen.

Curiosity, adaptability, flexibility, and the willingness to admit that you’re wrong—all those things are important skills, especially when you’re trying to forge new ground. I hire and promote people who, when they see an unmet need, volunteer to help create the solution and leverage the talents of others on the team to get work done.

What are some of the key skills you’ve learned and developed during your career at Autodesk?

One is being more lean and agile and gradually funding projects as they hit milestones. In the past, I’ve had situations where we had 100 people at the beginning of a project, and no one knew what to do because it was too early for that many resources.

Another key point I’ve learned is that agile development enables us to do more frequent customer engagements and releases. That was a big change that helped us be more responsive to customers. Another one is knowing when to partner and when to build. There is so much new technology, and you can’t be best-in-class at all of it. Knowing where you can find a best-in-class, trusted partner is super important, and then you invest in the areas where you uniquely bring value.

How have the requirements for roles changed as you moved through your career?

As a product manager, you need to be decisive and keep things moving. As you move into management, you need to empower people to make decisions because if you are still making all the decisions, you won’t be able to move fast or help people learn when something doesn’t go as expected.

How do you respond when things don’t go as expected?

There’s definitely a fear of failure, but if you’re not taking some risks, you’re not going to learn as much as you can. When something goes wrong, I try to use myself as an example and share stories with the team. For example, there was one exercise we’d done awhile ago to rebalance our product portfolio, and there was a product we put on maintenance. It wasn’t getting any new features, but we were keeping it current with operating-system changes.

The issue was that we didn’t realize how heavily some customers were relying on it. We’d scaled back too far, and we had to go back and add more resources. When something like this happens, I encourage people to have a blameless postmortem—figure out what happened, objectively. Be clear that no one’s to blame, but make sure it doesn’t happen again. However, if I see a chronic pattern of problems, that needs to be dealt with in a different way.

How has your approach to product management evolved over the course of your career?

When I started in product management, a lot of my knowledge came by studying what competitors were doing, lots of customer visits, surveys, and using a lot of gut instinct to make decisions. Today, we can marry that with data. We have mountains of data on sentiment, usage, churn, and so many other metrics. A product manager has to look across a broader landscape and marry both qualitative and quantitative data to make decisions.

You still have to make decisions quickly, but having that data muscle—and people to help you sift through that data—is really important. You can use the data to make decisions about where to go with the product, and then you can start to personalize those experiences for users.

What do you aspire to do next?

Well, I have a great job and a great team. Going through COVID-19 has tested us as leaders, but it’s also brought us closer together. But if you push me to think about the future? Someday, I’d love to have sales and marketing responsibility as well.

How do you encourage more women to enter product management?

One really easy thing I do is to sponsor the Women in Product organization. It has an annual conference, which is virtual this year. My team recruits through that organization and also looks to hire a diverse slate of interns. And I take meetings with anyone who wants to have a career conversation; I’m happy to share tips and tricks with people on how to learn and expand their horizon on product management as a career.

Another dimension to consider is also retention. People often work so hard to find diverse candidates only to hire them and have them leave quickly. It’s just as important to create an environment where everyone can thrive. Often, it is a person’s direct manager who has the biggest impact on this. And it should go without saying that hiring managers must also consider other underrepresented groups. Like most companies, Autodesk has a set of Employee Resource Groups [ERGs] that help create a sense of belonging. For example, I’m proud to be the executive sponsor of our Pride ERG.

What advice do you have for product managers who want to be agents for change at their companies?

Always start with the strategy. Be transparent about your thinking. Focus on the why before you get into tactical execution of things. That builds trust and will help you build your brand.

“I encourage people to have a blameless postmortem … be clear that no one’s to blame, but make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

—Amy Bunszel, Autodesk Senior VP of Design and Creation Products

Susan Etlinger

About Susan Etlinger

Susan Etlinger is a globally recognized expert in digital strategy, with a focus on artificial intelligence, technology ethics, and data. She is director, AI & Innovation, at Microsoft and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. Her TED talk entitled “What Do We Do With All This Big Data?” has been translated into 25 languages and has been viewed more than 1.3 million times.

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